Saturday, January 07, 2006

Max Allan Collins

I wouldn't be blogging today if it weren't for Max Allan Collins. Twenty five years ago, I made a cold call to him to tell him how much I enjoyed his novels. Getting together wasn't tough. We live about an hour apart. Carol and I drove over one Saturday night and met not only Al but his truly beautiful and talented and very funny wife Barb.

Naturally, we talked about writing and why I, who'd sold a lot of short stories to magazines of varying repute, hadn't ever written a novel. I told him l I'd started about a hundred of the damned things but that I always got stuck at some point and started backtracking and then just gave up. He gave me the single most useful piece of writing advice I've ever ever received. Don't look back. Finish the first draft straight through and then go back and do whatever needs to be done in the revisions.

Al not only got me through the first draft of my first novel, he introduced me to his agent and then ended up giving me the title, mine being pretty bland.

But Al is the gift that keeps in giving. He's helped me with advice, tips and slots in his anthologies. He's also done one more thing. He's given me instant inspiration many times over.

I recently heard John Updike interviewed on NPR. I was a big fan of the early Updike so gave it a listen. While he was there ostensibly to talk about his new book on art, the subject of writing inevitably came up. He said one thing that I think is profound, even if it sounds ridiculously simple. He said that all good writing needs energy. Through sheer force it has to carry you on from sentence to sentence, paragraph to pargraph, page to page.

He said something about activity isn't to be confused with energy. There aren't any tricks to it. The best writing just has this driving force. He said he felt his own work sometimes suffered from lagging energy.

This is where Al Collins comes in again. I keep a shelf of some of my favorite novels on a shelf above my computer. There you'll find King, Koontz, Pronzini, Didion, O'Hara, Margaret Millar, Dorothy Parker, Westlake, Block, Lutz, Rendell, Dolores Hitchens and several others. These are books that always have something to teach me and I look at them constantly in the course of writing a novel.

But there is also the right hand drawer of my desk. This is where I keep Al's Quarry novels. To me Al is one of the two or three best storytellers of my generation. He is a magnificent plotter, stylist and delineator of character. I have a pretty complete collection of his books in my general library. I look on his body of work with true awe. And envy. Would that my own stuff be as good, diverse, witty, informative and timeless. I think it's one of the major bodies of work in contemporary crime fiction and should be acknowledged as such by many more writers and reviewers.

But the Quarry books in my right hand drawer are special. Whenever I feel my own material lagging, I take one of them out and read twenty pages or so and go back to work, refocused and refreshed. The Quarry's are so tightly told, so stylistically vivid and so damned relentless that these tales of a melancholy hit man take on iconic force. And the writing--for me it's like taking vitamins. I have power, focus and new raw enthusiasm for my writing after only a few pages of Mr. Quarry. He's so damned sarcastic, so damned observant, so damned clever, he's bound to get reinvigorate your own storytelling.

As I said, Al Collins, the gift that keeps on giving.


Blogger mtmorgan said...

I think the Nolan and Quarry series are both really cool.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Amen, Ed. I liken Al's books the The Beatles' songs. No matter what type of material they did, and whether the song was a classic or run-of-the-mill composition, they infused it with so much intelligence and talent that they made it something a notch above its potential. But don't sell yourself short. Your books are always special. You have a way of injecting a fresh perspective to any genre, of creating characters who are solid and three-dimensional, and showing that even the villains can have one redeeming quality.
Must be that Iowa air that produces so much talent.

11:26 AM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

Quarry is awesome. And Al's a pretty good guy as well.

12:21 PM  

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